Government Involvement & Subsidy for Canadian TV Drama

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BRD 015Management in the MediaRobert WatsonGovernment Involvment & Subsidy for Canadian TV Drama-What Role Should the CRTC Play?This essay focuses on the mandate and funding of public broadcasters with the implications and effects of subsidizing production and protecting the industry. The program genre focused on is Canadian television drama. What role should the CRTC play in this context? As will be seen, the implications of government involvement in subsidizing and protecting this type of Canadian production are not necessarily solely bound to the genre of drama.

Before looking at the application of individual CRTC issues as they relate to the production of Canadian television drama, one should be aware of the role of a public broadcaster. The main goal of this type of broadcaster should be to promote drama that provides a heightened sense of identity and national awareness. Especially with respect to cultural and minority programming this goal sets a unique cultural standard, compared to the US where 'culture' is created without such distinct guidelines as in Canada.

One struggle Canada faces when trying to promote its own culture in creating television drama is money. This generally means that Canadian artists have difficulty being seen or heard in the media. For example, the U.S. has a government financed operation called World Net which freely distributes programs that 'enhance U.S. culture' abroad. Thus, foreign countries may be willing to accept more American shows into their markets than Canadian media products. Canada would be in a better position if there were financial means to support similar activity in foreign markets. Up until now "financial subsidies in Canada have primarily taken the form of funding for Telecom Canada and the Broadcast Production Fund." The NFB or the CBC would definitely benefit from a 'Canadian Net' where Canadian culture could be distributed abroad, creating a new awareness of the 'Maple Leaf.'In this context the CRTC can essentially take on only a directive function, since it does not offer financial subsidies to create Canadian cultural products. As a regulatory body the CRTC makes sure that a certain amount of Canadian culture becomes voiced in TV drama, but what about a marketability of these products to foreign investors and buyers? Following this question, the CRTC is in a difficult position to balance out considerations pertaining to reaching out to an international market for its Canadian products. However, these considerations have to be made paramount, since "there are growing threats from abroad that could upset the current system [upheld by Canadian cultural advocates], threats that cannot be solved by special deals from the CRTC or government."The threat mentioned here is also a result of the present shifts and mergers within the telecommunications sector. Truly the CRTC is in a problematic position, but if one sees a threat as a potential chance, there is a way to tackle the following dilemma successfully:The CRTC is struggling to find a balance between consumer choice and the system goals of promoting and nurturing Canadian programming, while protecting the broadcasting and cable industry as they encounter increased competition. At the end of the day, the CRTC must also meet the demands of conflicting political masters.

Finally, apart from dealing with its own inner struggles, Canada is in a difficult position with respect to its giant neighbor, the U.S. Although there are laws designed to promote Canadian media activity inwards, such as Bill C-32 ("the Bill") , which enables Canadians to present Canadian-created stories to Canadians, it would be helpful if this support were turned outwards. Some policy has to be found to allow Canadian artists and dramatic shows to maintain their identity while competing globally in a tough market. Having "actors talk in American accents using American idiom" or watching "successful Canadian producers" migrate to Los Angeles is not the answer. Canadians generally watch more US programming than their national programming. The public broadcaster serves the Canadian viewers' tastes with cheap (compared to Canadian productions) American dramatic television. If there is no chance to ever beat the low US export price compared to the cost of Canadian production the only alternative is to help Canadian television production by any governmental means available.

Here the CRTC itself as a regulatory body has a very difficult position. On the one hand, its statute to promote Canadian programming by means of Cancon regulations is designed to ensure that Canadian TV drama, for example gets to be aired at all, via blocking certain time slots for these shows to air. On the other hand, the American products, which are much cheaper for a broadcaster to buy than a Canadian drama of the same genre, due to the high production costs, have a level of appeal and arguably an aesthetic quality that is superior to "home-made" products, as Robert Fulford asks:Are there good Canadian movies on the shelves? (…) with rare exceptions, the films that are not distributed do not deserve distribution. The problem is with the producers who make so many bad films, rather than with the distributors; when good Canadian movies are made they usually find appropriate audiences.

Due to these foregoing ever-present difficulties, Canadian television drama may only stand a chance if the government and CRTC make a better effort at using the appropriate form of intervention. The highly problematic issue of intervention is connected to the question of how a public broadcaster should be financed. With respect to Canadian Television drama, this issue is relatively straightforward - the more money this type of broadcaster can raise the more money will be able to go to the production of Canadian televised drama.

The question is what this funding should look like, in order to get the most beneficiary result in terms of revenue for the broadcaster. A licence fee, which has traditionally been the source of financing for a public broadcaster is a consistent source of income, as long as administrative costs remain constant. A parliamentary appropriation, has a relatively simple administration, but also carries the uncertainty about the annual level and dependence on the government. The subscription model that would eventually replace the licence fee calls the financing of a public broadcaster generally into question, and today seems not to be the ideal solution. Advertising would be the best solution to finance a public broadcaster, however, here we have the problem that American programming with respect to drama is at its best, when it comes to Canadian viewer appeal - or from an advertiser's perspective it is better to place commercials within slots of a non-Canadian show, that reaches a greater target group. Therefore, there seems to be no simple or easy answer to the question of financing. Generally, if an appealing Canadian TV series was created, the advertising revenue for these shows will go up.

From these considerations it should be asked if the CRTC has any influence at all on matters of funding and financing of Canadian products. How could the CRTC as a regulatory body act, even if only indirectly, as financially supportive to help a Canadian producer? It is curious that apart from many inherent contradictions resting within the "Canadian cultural industries" research has been limited to only a few institutional bodies, notably including the CRTC:Paul Audley's 1983 study put Canadian cultural industries on the map of international scholarship. Before that, the analysis of Canada's cultural industries had been almost entirely a preoccupation internal to the Canadian cultural policy apparatus, such as the CRTC and the Secretary of State). (…) Only rarely would a voice be heard from the Anglo-Canadian academic world.

Following up the idea of the government supporting a Canadian television drama by whatever means possible, the aspect of direct subsidy to a television program from the government should be mentioned. Although there is no evidence that governmental financing of the TV industry generates more jobs than a different industry the overall positive effects for Canadian programming are beyond description. In this context the government has to do more for independent Canadian producers. For example, the government should compensate for the market failure of not compensating Canadian producers of dramatic television programs. It has to be more lucrative for a talented Canadian producer to develop a dramatic show, otherwise this person will eventually orient herself/himself towards a better paying option, i.e. the US.

In this context, arguably, the present situation with content regulations - Cancon - and binding quotas relating to the making of a Canadian production appear as being counterproductive. Here the role of the CRTC is crucial. It does make sense to have a certain degree of Cancon involved, when producers apply for governmental funding, however, the way these rules have been enforced up to the present appear to be non-effective in terms of creating a successful Canadian TV drama series. To the critical viewer it appears that the creative side has to be given more freedom in terms of Cancon. If a greater creative freedom existed - especially with respect to getting governmental support in terms of financing - a TV crew full of creative talent would more likely not go to the US as they do now. The Cancon regulations are either too complex, too broad or are applied in the wrong way. If this is not changed, in the future, the chance exists that genuine Canadian artistic expression will diminish even more. The imposition of quotas, too, can be problematic, and as is generally seen, is not the optimal approach either.

Following these considerations, the CRTC should re-evaluate the Cancon regulations. There seems to be ambiguity involved in what qualifies as Cancon, and taking this step a bit further, does there have to be Cancon as established by the CRTC at all? Would Canadian culture cease to exist without these regulations? It appears that there is a lot of, possibly unnecessary, political weight and false patriotism attached to Canadian-content regulations and incentives, as Dorland points out:In 1985, the CRTC president declared: 'Should broadcasting or structural elements of our cultural industries be included in free trade negotiations directly or indirectly, there could be substantial challenge to your industry and to Canadian cultural sovereignity (…) Let's not kid ourselves: our government will be pressured to make concessions if it wants to get significant benefits.'As a result of this quote, if hyped-up and overridden nationalistic pride dictates what the CRTC puts out as regulation, there have to be different steps taken to promote Canadian home-produced cultural goods. What always helps to foster Canadian productivity is tax concessions. In this way the government can effectively demonstrate their support of Canadian television drama. If a Canadian TV series has difficulty or no chance to qualify for a fund and/or subsidy, due to Cancon or other regulations, any form of effective tax concession should be made available. In effect, it is Canadian employment and tax revenue that arise from helping a television series come about.

Apart from tax concessions, one should also take a closer look at licencing conditions and criteria for funding independent productions. With respect to criteria for considering and financing independent productions, the CBC applies regulatory criteria for this type of production. A production needs to have a certain amount of Cancon, preferably a distinctly Canadian essence to it. The submission process in general can be left the way it is, since this does not appear to be the heart of the problem. However, in the artistic limitations that are imposed upon a television drama, in order to meet licencing conditions the overall evaluation done by the CBC and their final assessment of a dramatic project, deserve closer scrutiny, possibly re-evaluation. It is worth noting that the CBC is devoting a 5 million $ plus sum per year to develop regional talent across Canada. From this point of view, one wonders if there may not be a potentially successful dramatic television series underway - if it is recognised and gets past the funding criteria regulations.

Taking the previously mentioned difficulties and problematic position of the CRTC into consideration, one should mention that there is a growing awareness of CRTC members that a change in regulations is necessary and mandatory, as well as highly problematic:The CRTC has shifted its approach away from 'micromanagement' of the system and is seeking ways to combine encouragement of competitive market forces with its supervisory obligations. The disputes that can be expected concern how quickly the regulator should abandon all attempts to achieve public service goals, leaving them to a market that is increasingly competitive with the addition of new entrants, notably the telephone companies. From the perspective of the CRTC, the regulatory dilemma has always involved striking a balance among conflicting objectives - those objectives increase with the addition of the very different telecommunications regime.

At any rate, if the CRTC does not change or reconsider its regulatory statute on Cancon, producers will have to dodge these restrictions via initiation and support of International co-production series. Many French-Canadian / French cinematic co-productions have already proven to be successful. However, in the television sector, especially with respect to a dramatic television series there are limitations. Apart from difficulties that may arise for the foreign country not being able to identify with what is depicted due to Cancon regulations, it is generally difficult to transcend different national cultural codes and expectations on an artistic level. One idea that might work is to give each respective national programmer the right to develop and film a different series on each territory, in return for each other. The way it stands now, due to CRTC regulations and restrictions, there is virtually no chance for this type, albeit any other international co-production to be established. The Canadian government should definitely look into this issue more closely, re-evaluate it and make any changes in regulation that may help untangle the difficulties.

In conclusion the government, the CRTC as well as the public broadcaster have to evaluate the present situation, in terms of supporting the creation of a Canadian televison drama series - this applies to other genre as well. As seen, to reach this goal, one cannot simply escape this necessity of re-evaluation by blaming the powerful American TV industry. There certainly is a lot of power and money available for US domination of markets, however, one should at least consider the Canadian television industry as having a chance to create genuine Canadian television drama that is not too expensive, successful in its own right and finally can be brought about at all in the first place. The development of independent TV production is the crux of the problem, since, as seen, the government needs to do something, for example, changing entry level restrictions, quotas, Cancon requirements imposed via the CRTC, in order to help Canadian producers and creative talent be able to follow up their creative scheme in the first place. As it stands, there is virtually no chance for any promising successful dramatic TV series to come about in Canada.

ReferencesDorland, Michael (ed.). The Cultural Industries in Canada. Toronto: Lorimer & Co., 1996.

Globerman, Steven, & Vining, Aidan. Foreign ownership, and Canada's feature film distribution sector: An economic analysis. Vancouver: 1987.

Harcourt, Peter. Canadian film policy: A short analysis. In Harry Hillman Chartrand, William S. Hendon, & Clair McCoughey (eds.). Cultural economics 88: A Canadian perspective. Akron: 1989.

Hoskins, Colin. Global Television and Film. New York: Oxford University Press, 1997.

Szuchewycz, Bohdan & Sloniowski, Jeanette (eds.). Canadian Communications: Issues in Contemporary Media and Culture. Scarborough: Prentice Hall, 1999.